DENNIS L. MAMMANA

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R E S O U R C E S

― AURORA VIEWING & PHOTO HANDBOOK ―

 

PHOTOGRAPHING THE AURORA
 

"Taking an aurora photo is easy. 
Taking a good aurora photo is hard!"  

  Dennis Mammana

 

Photographing the aurora is far from an exact science. The lights can change dramatically in brightness and movement within seconds―or they can hide entirely―and that makes it impossible to offer anything but the most general guidelines. 

During my public aurora trips to Alaska, Iceland, Norway and elsewhere, I present tips and advice that extend far beyond these brief notes, and I help travelers take the best aurora photos their equipment will allow.  In the meantime, check out these notes so you're prepared when the lights come out!

 
 

Equipment

         
Camera Body:    Almost any camera―either digital or film―will work for photographing the aurora, as long as you can adjust it manually to take time exposures of 10-30 seconds or longer.  An all-automatic camera may not work well for these photos, I'm afraid, but it's certainly worth trying. 

Digital cameras do a great job if you can set them for a fast ISO (200, 400 or faster).  
Cold temperatures will sap battery strength, so carry spare batteries in a warm place, such as an inside pocket.  And don't worry about using a light meter; it usually will only work for your daytime photos!

For shooting film, an older mechanical camera bodyone that doesn't use batteries to open the shutterwill usually work best. That doesn't mean that your automatic or semi-automatic camera won't work.  Always carry plenty of spare batteries.

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use a Nikon D700 DSLR camera body for shooting the lights.]   

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Any camera that can be adjusted for manual exposures.  For film, a mechanical, all-manual camera body is best; many digital cameras also work well.]   

  
 
Lenses:    Nearly any kind of lens will work for aurora photography but, since the aurora can cover huge areas of the sky, a wide-angle lens would be a much better choice.  Equally important is that the lens be as 'fast' as possible (i.e., have a small f/ratio like f/2.8, f/2 or smaller).  Without a fast lens, exposures will need to be longer, and that will tend to blur the aurora more.

Zoom lenses also work, but they're not usually very 'fast'.  Typically lenses don't provide sharp images when used 'wide open', so if your lens is extremely fast (f/1.8 or faster), it's a good idea to stop down by 1/2 or one stop.  Unless we get a tremendously brilliant aurora―very rare―you won't want to shoot with your lens set any slower than f/2.8.

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use a Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8G ED lens  for shooting the lights.]   

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Use a fast (f/2.8 or lower) wide angle lens for aurora photography.]   

     
 

Filters:    Never use a filter on your lens when photographing the aurora.  Depending on what kind of filter it is, it can either reduce valuable light or produce a series of dark concentric circles (Newton's Rings) in the center of your photo.

[Dennis' Equipment:  None]   

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Remove all filters from your lens before shooting the aurora.]

   
 
Tripod:   This is not the time to use a flimsy tripod.  It should be strong enough to hold the camera steady for long exposures―even in a blustery wind.

If you've got more than one camera but have only one tripod, you'll spend lots of time removing your camera and replacing it, and you'll miss some great shots. Either take along one tripod for each camera you've got or add extra "quick-release plates" to each camera.  Don't overdo it; two cameras should be more than enough. 

To beef up a lighter tripod, hang your camera bag from the tripod's center post.  And, if you want to be able to handle your tripod in very cold weather, pick up some foam packing material or insulating fabric and cover the tripod legs with it.  Your hands―even buried in gloves―will thank you!

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use a Manfrotto 475B Professional Tripod with Geared Column and a Manfrotto 410 Head for shooting constantly moving aurora.]

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Always use a sturdy tripod with quick-release plates, and insulate the legs.]

   
 
Remote Control / CABLE Release/:   This is also not the time to skimp on a remote control or cable release.  A quality device―whether for digital or film cameras―costs a bit more but will work much more reliably than an inexpensive one. 

For a digital camera, an electronic remote control is necessary to prevent vibrating the camera when pressing the shutter.  Make sure you carry spare batteries in an inside pocket since the cold can sap their strength. 

For a film camera, a mechanical release should be the kind that locks, keeping the shutter open for long time exposures.  It's wise to have at least one spare since these can break or freeze up.

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use a very simple Pearstone Wired Remote Switch for my D700.]

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Have at least two quality electronic remote control devices or locking cable releases.]

       
 
Batteries:   Few things sap the strength of batteries more than long exposures in cold weather.  Keep at least one or two sets of spare batteries warm in an inside pocket;  if you see the power level of the batteries dropping, replace them with fresh ones―before they die.  And make sure you have spare batteries for everything you'll be using―camera, remote controls, digital storage units, etc, and a charger.   Cold batteries will often regain their strength after warming up again.  Li-Ion batteries tend to withstand cold better than others.

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use proprietary Li-Ion batteries for my Nikon D700.]

[Dennis' Recommendation:   Have warm spare batteries (and a charger) for every electronic device you have.]
   
 
Digital  The key to aurora photography is a fast ISO setting for your camera.  ISO 200, 400, 800 or higher all work well for aurora shots, but the higher the ISO number, the more likely there will be digital "noise" in your images.  This is similar in some ways to film grain.

Since the color response of digital cameras to light can be controlled, the white-balance should be set to "daylight", if possible, or altered to produce the colors that are most pleasing to you.   Or you can shoot in RAW format and have more data and flexibility to make adjustments later.

The real advantages of digital imaging is the immediate feedback and the ability to make changes quickly. 

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use my Nikon D700 to shoot in both RAW and JPEG formats.  I use the JPEG image to make quick images for projection or e-mail, and the RAW image to make high-quality prints.]   

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Start with ISO 400 and increase it if necessary.  If you shoot in RAW, white balance isn't important at this point.  If you shoot in JPEG mode, set it to "daylight"  and make changes to match your preference.]

   
 
Film:   If you're shooting film, the key is to use fast film.  This is represented by a high ISO number:  ISO 400 & 800 work great for aurora photography.  Various film types respond differently to auroral light.   Which you use is a matter of preferenceyou'll get as many opinions as there are aurora photographers.

Some use Kodak films; others prefer Fuji.  If you like shooting negatives (for prints), you might try using Fujicolor 400 or 800. If you prefer shooting slides, you can try one of the Fujichrome 400 films.  Slides can provide more natural colors than print film and, of course, can be turned into wonderful prints as well.  When shooting with film, this was always my choice.  And, since I bracketed a lot, I planned on using 2 to 4 rolls per night;   of course, your numbers may vary. 

[Dennis' Equipment:  I no longer shoot film, but have always prefer the response and "look" of Fuji 400 slide film for shooting the aurora.]

[Dennis' Recommendation: For first-time aurora photographers, try Fujicolor 400 or 800 print film;  for slides, try Fujichrome 400 slide film.]

   
 
Digital Memory:   Before capturing digital images of the aurora, it's important to ask yourself what your final product will be.  If you plan to use these for a website or e-mail, you need only small, low resolution images.  If you wish to produce prints, larger files with higher resolution will be necessary.  Either way, you'll need a fairly high-capacity memory card for the camera, and at least one or two spares. Yes, they can fail!

You can never have enough memory.  To free up your cards and to back up your work, consider having a means for storing captured images, such as a laptop computer or other dedicated storage devices.    

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use Lexar Platinum II 8GB (200x cards, and download images to my Acer Aspire V5-531 laptop computer and back them up to an external Iomega 80GB hard drive.]

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Have at least one spare memory card and  storage devices to which you can download and back up your images.]

    
 
What about Video?    Despite how bright and dramatic the aurora can appear to the eye, it's nearly invisible to even low-light or three-CCD video cameras. High-end consumer video cameras might see something, but will also display quite a bit of noise.  Remarkable aurora VHS tapes and DVDs are available for purchase, but these use supersensitive (read: expensive) cameras! 

One easy way of capturing time-lapse motion pictures of aurora, however, is through digital animation.  By taking a series of exposures with a digital camera fixed to a tripod, one can use a variety of computer software to assemble an "animated GIF". 

While image sequences can be captured by hand―with a timer to assure equal intervals between frames―it's best to use an automatic electronic intervelometer (available only with some high-end digital cameras) to assure precision.  Even though it's only necessary that individual images be relatively small and low-resolution, a large capacity and fast memory card is extremely important.   

[Dennis' Equipment:  Currently I use my Canon 20D DSLR with a TC80N3 Timer Remote Control to produce many sequential images that I assemble into time-lapse video with Animation Shop software.]

[Dennis' Recommendation:  If you have a video camera, you can certainly try ityou never know!  Or try your hand at digital animation instead.]

    
 
 

TECHNIQUES

   
Exposures:   These depend on a number of factors: what kind of lens you've got, how fast it is, film speed, aurora brightness and motion. There is no way to predict the appearance and behavior of the aurora, so only general guidelines are possible.

To assure that something comes out, be sure to 'bracket' your exposures―some over and some under what you 'think' is correct. For example, you might try f/2.8 at 10s, 20s, 30s, or some other range that assures you'll get something. In other words, plan on three or four exposures for every photograph until you begin to see what you like. Better to take too many than not enough.

With digital cameras, this is easy to do and you can delete bad images later.  If you're shooting film, don't worry about "wasting" it; film is inexpensive compared to returning home with no aurora photos!

The following table offers some very rough estimates to start out:
            f/ratio 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO            
            2 15 sec 07 sec 04 sec            
            2.8 30 sec 15 sec 07 sec            
            4 60 sec 30 sec 15 sec            

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Bracket well, but keep exposures as short as possible to preserve auroral detail.  If the image is too bright, change settings to darken it.  If the image is too dark, change settings to brighten it.]

  
 

Keeping Records:   Digital cameras record camera settings along with the images but, if you're shooting with film, be sure to keep an accurate log of all important settings for each frame.  That way, when your photos are processed, you'll know what produces the best results for your next outing.  This will help considerably on your next night out.

[Dennis' Recommendation:   Film shooters should log details of all shots and study these after the shoot to learn what works and what doesn't in various situations.]

  
 
Film Processing and Printing:    Have your film processed as soon as possible, especially if you're away from home when you shoot the aurora.  If you choose to wait until you get home to process your film, make sure you take your aurora photos to a custom lab.

If you shoot prints, your processor may not know how to print your photos. You can find a magazine or book with some good aurora photos and lend it to the processor as samples. Or you can shoot a 'normal' daylight shot at the beginning or end of each roll and tell the processor to use those color settings for the aurora photos.

If you shoot slides, tell the processor to leave them un-cut and un-mounted. You'll then be able to compare your images, the frame numbers and your notes. You can then select the best images, mount them yourself with simple cardboard or plastic mounts, and have them printed or scanned. 

[Dennis' Recommendation:  Always use a custom professional lab for processing and printing your aurora photos.]

    
 
  

AURORA PHOTO CHECKLIST

    

To enjoy the aurora, all you really need is your eyes and plenty of warm clothing and boots.  If, however, you wish to photograph the sky show consider taking along the following items:

□  Camera(s)
□  Fast normal and/or wide angle lens(es)
□  Tools for minor repairs
□  Memory cards or fast color film
□  Lens cleaning supplies
□  Good remotes or cable releases
□  Flashlight covered with red cellophane
□  Sturdy tripod(s) & quick release plates
□  Spare batteries for everything & charger
□  Equipment manual for everything
□  Laptop and backup digital storage device
□  Knee pads for viewing through low tripod
□  Chemical hand warmers
□  Gaffer's tape
□  Note pads (or logbook) and pen
 
 
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT:   Learn to operate everything well in advance, and be sure all works well.  I cannot emphasize this enough... unless you're a pro at working under cold and dark conditions, this will help more than you can possibly know.  You may even consider having your cameras "winterized".  And be sure to take a spare of everything that could possibly fail.   Remember: "Murphy" is an aurora fan too!

 

And be sure to visit my Sky Photo of the Week page to see the types of photos that are possible with only a simple camera and tripod!


Dennis Mammana

 

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